Volume V – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918

Introduction by L C F Turner

The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.

Volume V of Bean’s history deals with the German offensive of March–April 1918, a decisive episode in the history of Europe and one of absorbing interest to the student of war. It could well be argued that the most important battles in Australian military annals were fought around Amiens and Hazebrouck in the spring of 1918. Bean’s treatment of those events is one of his finest achievements; his balanced judgement and mastery of detail recall the work of that great military historian, Sir Charles Oman.

Although the U–boat campaign of 1917 had failed to achieve the decision at sea which the German admirals had confidently predicted, and had led to the American declaration of war on 6 April, yet political and military developments in that momentous year had gone heavily in favour of the Central Powers. Russia had collapsed and the armistice which the Bolsheviks had been forced to sign in December 1917 enabled the German High Command to transfer a million men and 3,000 guns to the Western Front. The French Army had barely recovered from the mutinies which followed Nivelle’s ill–fated offensive, the British Army had been bled white at Passchendaele, while Italy was still reeling from the blow of Caporetto. During the winter of 1917–1918, Germany prepared to stake all her reserves and resources in a supreme attempt to achieve decisive victory before the millions of American troops could arrive on the Western Front.

Bean was well aware that the events of 1918 cannot be understood without appropriate attention to the political and strategic background, and in the opening chapters of Volume V he gave a detailed account of Allied planning. He showed that although the Allies set up a Supreme War Council at Versailles in December 1917, they failed to solve the vital issue of unity of command on the Western Front. He stressed the grave differences between Lloyd George and Haig, which led the British Prime Minister to retain substantial reinforcements in Britain in case they should be squandered in another Passchendaele. Bean also paid close attention to German strategy and preparations.

General Ludendorff, First Quartermaster-General and de facto Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, held a conference at Mons on 11 November 1917 at which he discussed the strategy of the offensive with General von Kuhl, Chief of Staff of the Army of the Army Group of Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, and Colonel von der Schulenburg, Chief of Staff of the Imperial Crown Prince. Schulenburg favoured an attack on both flanks of the Verdun salient aiming at a wide collapse of the French front, while Kuhl argued for attacking the British and striking at the vital railway junction of Hazebrouck, south-west of the Ypres salient. Ludendorff agreed that the main blow should be against the British but said it should be located further south in the Somme valley. He declared that Germany had sufficient resources for only one offensive and that “a second simultaneous offensive, say as a diversion will not be possible”.1 His final decision taken on 21 January was to launch his onslaught against the British Third and Fifth armies on both sides of St Quentin and on a front extending from Arras to the Oise.

The attack in the Somme valley was given the code name “Michael”, and was to be followed a few days later by an attack at Arras, under the code name “Mars”. A subsidiary offensive was to be prepared in Flanders, with the code name “George”, but Ludendorff’s hopes were concentrated on the success of “Michael” and “Mars”. Some accounts of the operation give the impression that Ludendorff’s original aim was to thrust down the Somme to Amiens and the sea, but Bean did not commit this error. He wrote: 2

“…after gaining the line of the Somme from Peronne southwards, the thrust would be directed more north-westwards, with the left flank on the Somme, so as to roll up the British front. An objection from Count Schulenburg, who pointed out that the line of attack would be across the devastated region of the "Albrecht" withdrawal and of the old Somme battlefield, did not shake Ludendorff’s conviction. General von Kuhl and Lieutenant-Colonel Wetzel [Ludendorff’s Chief of Operations] followed up their suggestions by memoranda…Wetzel urged that if the attack must be against the British, it should at least be a double one – first, a diversion at St Quentin to draw thither the British reserves, and then the main stroke through Hazebrouck; the obstacles in the west, he contended, were too great to be penetrated in a single blow. But Ludendorff held to his own view.”

Whatever criticisms can be made of Ludendorff’s strategy, it is difficult to praise too highly his masterly tactical and technical preparations for the battle. Although the German Army had very few tanks, Ludendorff and his staff resolved the problem of a breakthrough on the Western Front which had baffled the British and the French for three years. Throughout the winter élite divisions of storm troops had been training in the new infiltration tactics, by which groups of heavily armed infantry, supported by mortars and flame-throwers, were to penetrate deeply into the hostile defences without regard to what was happening on the flanks. They would be followed by “battle groups” of battalion or regimental strength, supported by field artillery, with the task of surrounding and capturing the positions by-passed by the leading storm troops. A continuous stream of reserves was to be used to reinforce success and maintain the momentum of the attack.

In contrast to the Allied preliminary bombardments which had lasted for days and even weeks, this attack was to be preceded by five hours hurricane cannonade by 6,600 guns and 3,500 mortars. Gas was to be mixed with high explosive, and the aim was to paralyse the defenders and avoid churning up the ground and destroying the roads and bridges behind the hostile front.

Three German armies were concentrated for the offensive. On the northern flank was the Seventeenth Army under Below, in the centre the Second Army under Marwitz and in the south the Eighteenth Army under Hutier. Their seventy-six divisions were to be hurled against the fourteen divisions of the British Third Army under Byng and the twelve divisions of the Fifth Army under Gough. While the Third Army was holding a forty-five kilometre front, the Fifth Army was stretched along sixty-seven kilometres, much of it consisting of a weakly defended zone recently taken over from the French. Haig had grouped most of his reserves in the sector north of Arras and was prepared to give ground in the Somme valley, provided he could hold the vital Arras bastion. The French Commander-in-Chief, Pétain, had promised that in the event of a German offensive in the St Quentin area, strong French reserves would move northwards in support.

When the March offensive opened the Australians were holding a relatively quiet sector near Messines. During the winter the five Australian divisions in France were grouped in a single corps under Birdwood – because of the shortage of recruits their reinforcements consisted largely of men returning from hospital. With 117,000 men in France the Australians totalled nearly a tenth of the British Army on the Western Front; they had parted company with the New Zealand Division which had merged with a British corps. Tough, ruthless and wary, the Australians were becoming increasingly professional, but this in no way blunted their readiness to attack.

The battle which began on 21 March marked the end of trench warfare and foreshadowed the Blitzkrieg of 1940. The preliminary bombardment had a paralysing effect on the defenders, whose resistance speedily collapsed when the German storm troops advanced in thick fog. By the end of the day the Germans had broken into open country and had taken 21,000 prisoners and 500 guns. In a few hours the Germans, at a cost of 40,000 casualties, had gained as much ground as the British had taken in five months fighting on the Somme with the loss of half a million casualties.

Between 22 March and early April Ludendorff sought by every means to exploit this tremendous victory, but the odds were against him. The Allies had over 100,000 motor lorries on the Western Front, while the Germans had only 23,000, many in very poor condition.3 The German Army was still dependent on horse-drawn transport, but many of the animals were reduced to skin and bone. As Schulenburg had predicted, the old Somme battlefield proved a difficult obstacle, while Allied aircraft flying low inflicted grievous losses on the endless marching columns.

Moreover, uncertainty regarding the strategic aim affected the course of the pursuit. Ludendorff had originally intended that Hutier’s Eighteenth Army should have the role of flank guard along the Somme, while the Seventeenth and Second armies rolled up the British front south and east of Arras. But their advance was relatively slow, and as early as 23 March Ludendorff was tempted to divert resources to Hutier in an attempt to separate the British from the French. Hutier made such rapid progress that Pétain spoke of swinging back his left to cover Paris, and this led to the conference at Doullens on 26 March, and the appointment of Foch as supreme Allied commander on the Western Front. On 28 March the Seventeenth Army was heavily repulsed in an attack on the Arras bastion, and Ludendorff now restricted his aim to a direct thrust at Amiens. He had captured 80,000 prisoners and 1,000 guns but had failed to attain any vital strategic objective.

The Australians began to enter this great battle on 25 March, when the 3rd and 4th Divisions were sent southwards towards the Somme by train, bus and lorry. The first clash occurred on 26–27 March at Hébuterne, south of Arras, where the 4th Brigade repulsed the Germans. The 4th Division was posted west of Albert, which had fallen to the German thrust, while the 3rd Division held the angle between the Ancre and the Somme. Through their lines passed the remnants of the Third and Fifth Armies in full retreat, but the Australians were in high spirits and revelled in the new conditions of open warfare. The task of the 3rd and 4th Divisions was to secure the right flank of the Third Army.

On 28 March the 4th Division was engaged in hard fighting between Dernancourt and Albert, but threw back the German 50th Reserve Division with heavy casualties. Attempts by battalions of the 3rd Division to advance in the Somme valley near Morlancourt met strong resistance, but attacks in the same area by the German 18th Division were broken with severe loss on 30 March. From Arras to the Somme the Germans had been held.

Attention now switched to the southern bank of the Somme, where the German Second Army was thrusting fiercely against the exhausted remnants of the Fifth Army. The 9th Australian Infantry Brigade was moved into reserve behind a line held mainly by British cavalry, and on 30 March the 33rd Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Morshead launched a counter-attack which restored a badly shaken line. There was then a pause between 30 March and 4 April, while the Germans brought up ammunition and reserves. This was followed by the first Battle of Villers–Bretonneux, a town of strategic significance because its capture would have given the Germans good observation over Amiens and would have brought that railway junction under effective artillery fire. The Germans, who included regiments of the 4th Guards Division, attacked under cover of a heavy bombardment on 4 April, and broke through the British 14th Division. Stout resistance by the 9th Australian Brigade, and a brilliant counter-attack by its 36th Battalion, saved the situation.

On 5 April the Germans struck north of the Somme. At Dernancourt the 4th Australian Division had to fight off a powerful attack which Bean described as the heaviest any Australian division had to endure in the whole war. After the 12th Brigade’s front was broken by the German 50th Reserve Division, the 48th Battalion launched a counter-attack which Bean said was “one of the finest ever carried out by Australian infantry”. The Division suffered 1,100 casualties, but the German repulse that day marked the end of the “Michael” offensive. The 4th Division was relieved by the 2nd Division, while the 5th Division entered the line south of the Somme.

Baulked in the Somme valley, Ludendorff decided to attack in Flanders, and revert to Kuhl’s original proposal to strike at the railway junction of Hazebrouck. Launched on 9 April and having the luck to pierce a sector held by a Portuguese division, this offensive made spectacular gains, capturing Armentières and threatening to break through to the Channel ports. The situation in the Lys valley appeared so grave that on 11 April Haig issued the famous message in which he told his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end”.

On 10 April the 1st Australian Division, which had reached the Amiens area, was ordered to entrain for Hazebrouck. Liddell Hart wrote: 4

This was the crisis. Less than five miles [eight kilometres] separated the Germans from Hazebrouck. On the 13th British and Australian reserves began to arrive from the south, and the German pressure to show signs of slackening – one self-confessed reason being their “difficulties of supply under the increasing attacks from the air”. The approach to Hazebrouck, barred just in time by the 4th Guards Brigade, was now firmly bolted by the 1st Australian Division…

The 1st Division beat off heavy attacks on 14 and 17 April, and the German thrust was deflected further north. Although some gains were made up to the 25th, Ludendorff was losing heart and his refusal to commit additional reserves terminated the Battle of the Lys. In a month of terrific fighting, the British Army, with some aid from the French, had stemmed and broken the mightiest offensive Germany had ever launched.

Bean’s volume concludes with the second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. An attack made by crack German troops, including the 4th Guards Division and supported by a few tanks, broke through the British defenders on 24 April and captured the town. The counter-attack that night by the 13th and 15th Brigades was a superb feat of arms, and Bean’s description is one of his most vivid battle-pieces. The Australians recaptured Villers-Bretonneux and regained most of the ground lost on the previous day.

Such in brief outline were the major operations covered in this massive volume. The Australians suffered over 15,000 casualties in March–April 1918; in spite of these losses, by the end of April their 2nd, 3rd and 5th Divisions were holding half the crucial front from Arras in the north to the French left wing south-east of Amiens. Both Haig and Foch had shown their extreme confidence in Australian troops, who had never fought better or with more telling effect. Some aspects of Bean’s treatment of these events will now be considered in greater detail.

Bean emphasized very strongly the moral effect of the arrival of the Australians in the battle area; this effect was felt at all levels of command and also among French civilians. When General Monash arrived at the Headquarters of the VII Corps on 26 March, General Congreve greeted him with the words, “Thank Heavens – the Australians at last!” Men of the 48th Battalion relieving the weary 9th Royal Scots on 27 March were asked, “Who are you” and on replying “Forty-eighth Australians” received the response: “Thank God, you will hold him”. Bean wrote that the marching columns of the 3rd Division were greeted by French refugees with “demonstrations of welcome and affection”, and cries of “Vive l’Australie”. A lieutenant of the 5th Division wrote: “Old men and womenfolk…pressed around telling us that now the bons Australiens had arrived they would not depart”.

For the first time in France the Australians were engaged in open warfare. Farms and villages were full of abundant stores of food and wine and Bean wrote: “Such conditions of warfare had never before been known to the A.I.F., and the campaign took on the complexion of a picnic, or of a children’s escapade, a world removed from the experiences of previous years. The conditions of the previous month in Flanders faded from memory like an evil dream”. Regarding the new tactical conditions, Bean wrote of the 4th Brigade at Hébuterne on 27 March (pp.129–30):

This once empty wilderness was quickly seen to be alive with movement such as Australian infantry had never before watched from their front trenches. Far back on the moor were German waggon-lines, the men about them preparing to resume their day’s advance. In the distance a German battery, in the open, blazed at some movement behind the Australian line; the flash of each gun could be detected. Signs of German transport could be seen in several directions, and at 11 o’clock numbers of infantry appeared only three–quarters of a mile [a little over a kilometre] away…They were deploying and obviously about to continue their advance…As these lines tried to sweep past the Australian front, the 15th and 13th poured into their flanks at long and moderate ranges a fire which completely broke the attack…

Once the main German thrusts had been halted, trench lines again sprang up but the defences could not be compared with the elaborate belts of wire, concrete pill-boxes and deep dug-outs through which the Australian infantry had to struggle in 1916–1917. Up to the end of April, it was usually possible for the German storm troops to break through the lines on the Somme front, and everything hinged on the timing and vigour with which reserves were thrown into a counter-attack.

Indeed the outstanding feature of the Australian operations in the spring of 1918 was the repeated success of their furious counter-attacks. To a considerable degree this is to be ascribed to the quality of the leadership at brigade and battalion level. Brigadier–Generals Rosenthal of the 9th Brigade, Glasgow of the 13th Brigade and Elliott of the 15th Brigade were commanders of wide experience and great tactical skill, whose careful planning and reconnaissance enabled them to make full use of the élan and ardour of their troops. While Bean as always devoted close attention to the private soldier and n.c.o., his volume emphasized repeatedly the crucial importance of higher tactical leadership.

The bayonet fighting around Villers-Bretonneux reached a pitch of ferocity rarely seen even on the Western Front. Describing the attack of the 15th Brigade on the night of 24th April, Bean wrote (pp.602–3):

There went up from the unleashed line a shout – a savage eager yell of which every narrative speaks – and the Australians made straight for the enemy…Men said “they had not had such a feast with their bayonets before”, reported Colonel Watson…

Bean quoted a sergeant’s account:

With a ferocious roar and the cry of “Into the bastards, boys” we were down on them before the Boche realized what had happened…The Boche was at our mercy. They screamed for mercy but there were too many machine-guns about to show them any consideration…

The volume of the German official history dealing with these operations was not published until 1944, 5 but Bean made very effective use of the admirable German divisional and regimental histories which provided a wealth of detail to supplement the Australian accounts. In describing a battle, Bean normally provided the reader with only such information about the enemy as Australian participants were aware of at the time; he would then give supplementary details from the German histories. As usual he took the greatest care to ensure accuracy. Regarding the killing of an Australian prisoner at Dernancourt, described in the footnote on p.397, Bean wrote to a correspondent on 11 October 1934:6 “The incident, as narrated, was so cold-blooded that, if correct, it cannot well be overlooked in the Official History. I want, however, to make absolutely sure of the correctness of your observation. Could there possibly have been any mistake?” Bean also took pains to record chivalrous treatment of Australian prisoners by the Germans.

Bean’s extraordinary attention to detail is illustrated by a letter to another correspondent on 9 May 1935: 7

I have reached the point in the Official History of the A.I.F. in which I have to deal with the fight at Villers-Bretonneux [i.e. 24 April]. The records of the 54th Battalion, which I have studied from end to end, contain little information, and I have been searching for the notes of an interview which I feel I had with you in Belgium in November 1918, in which you gave me a minute account of your recollections of the fight. Unfortunately, despite a thorough search I cannot find these notes – it is the only one of my own records of the whole war on which I have been unable to put my hand when it was required.

Bean’s debt to the British and French official histories is expressed in his Preface. He maintained a detailed correspondence over several years with Sir James Edmonds, the British official historian, and this close liaison accounts for Bean’s masterly assessment of British strategy and his fairness to the British soldier displayed particularly in his chapter, “The Truth about the Fifth Army”.

The reader who wishes to assess Bean’s methods of sifting evidence should make a careful study of his Appendix dealing with the death of Baron von Richthofen on 21 April 1918. He had reached his conclusion by 1929 and wrote to a correspondent: “I have not the slightest doubt that he was shot from the ground”.

Bean was careful not to exaggerate the Australian achievement in March-April 1918. He wrote (pp.672–3).

It has frequently been claimed that the Australian infantry divisions stopped the advancing Germans in their previously victorious progress towards Amiens and also towards Hazebrouck…if this claim means that the Germans continued to advance until they came up against Australian troops hurriedly brought to the rescue, and that these were the troops that first held up the enemy on the line on which the offensive ended, it is not literally true of any important sector of the Somme front…8

On the other hand Bean rightly said that 1st Australian Division at Hazebrouck stopped the German progress completely, as did the 5th British Division on its right and the 33rd British Division on its left.

With regard to the Somme valley Bean concluded, after a thorough examination of the evidence, that the “Michael” offensive had lost its impetus when the advancing Germans encountered the 3rd and 4th Australian divisions in the last days of March. Nevertheless, the Australians were holding a sector vital for the defence of Amiens, and Bean’s narrative brings out very clearly the fighting quality of the Australian Corps and its distinguished achievements in the closing stages of the battle which Churchill described as “the mightiest military conception and the most terrific onslaught which the annals of war record”.9

L.C.F. Turner
Canberra
September 1981

Notes

  1. Correlli Barnett, ‘Offensive 1918’, in Noble Frankland and Christopher Dowling, eds., Decisive Battles of the Twentieth Century (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1976), p.65.
  2. Volume V, p.103. See also Martin Middlebrook, The Kaiser’s Battle (London: Alan Lane, 1978) p. 32.
  3. Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Deutschland und der Erste Weltkrieg (Frankfurt am Maine: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1968) p. 635.
  4. B.H. Liddell Hart, A History of the World War 1914-1918 (London: Faber and Faber, 1934) p. 519.
  5. German official history Der Weltkrieg, Volume XIV (Berlin: OKW, 1944)
  6. Bean papers, Australian War Memorial, Correspondence Volume V.
  7. Ibid.
  8. This claim is implied by Sir John Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, rev. ed. (Melbourne and Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1923), p. 28 and p. 31.
  9. W.S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1916-1918, Part II (London: Butterworth, 1927), p. 421.